How Wrestling Explains the World: Abraham Lincoln

This is something we are calling Is Wrestling _____?, where we attempt to make a connection between professional wrestling and something from the world outside of Kayfabe. We will try to post at least one thing per day, though we obviously can’t promise anything because we’re not so secretly the worst. And today, we’ll look at the building of the American narrative through the history of the United States and its first homegrown baby face, Abraham Lincoln.

Unlike Gilgamesh, Honest Abe is a man we know much about through accurate history, official record, and reliable journalism, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t also a mythic ruler whose significance as a symbol matches his importance as a commander-in-chief. He is one of the principal protagonists of the unwritten American epic and one of the faces of the country.

In the final days of the Civil War, American reporters, historians, and citizens needed a unifying and cathartic narrative to adequately grieve a fallen president during one of most desperate moments in American history. What emerged was carefully constructed, borrowing many of the tones of the concurrent Romantic Movement. While it wasn’t quite the NWA, it was an overarching angle booked through national consensus that united the country in an attempt to heal the collective soul.

Abraham Lincoln, a character in a wrestling angle? Well, one thing we always hear about Lincoln’s youth is that he was a talented wrestler who was helpful to people and devoted to his family — like a proto-Von Erich boy — a strapping young lad who treats people with respect and emotes positivity. He grew in notoriety through a series of feuds, working his way from Congressman to President before taking over as the face of the body politic.

America went through a journey with Lincoln that built him up as a figure of sympathy and admiration – the definition of an effective babyface run. Just as he was elected, the ground fell apart beneath his feet, and what should have been a time of celebration became a chaotic struggle to preserve what was precious. Lincoln publicly endured personal challenges as he battled depression and self-doubt and publicly grieved losing a family member.

Now, consider the portrait of John Wilkes Booth — the chickenshit heel — that we learn: a pasty, sensitive, artistic guy who lives in the shadow of a more successful, better-loved brother. He’s merely the rattish disciple of a corrupt cause, overly eager to make a splash. Otherwise a footnote to history, he takes on the heel performance of a lifetime to cement a heroic legacy.

And like the bump guy on the bottom of a heel stable, the wimpy but conniving Booth snuck up behind the babyface…
Lincoln had shrugged off beatdowns his whole presidency, but this time the swerve was on. Just like Wrestlemania XXX, the despicable heel ended The Streak, shocking the world and breaking the hearts of many. The bitterness over the prospect of Reconstruction had replaced the war itself within a month. It was a paradigm shift. “The Next Guy” desperately needed to emerge. The nation waited a long time for that man to show up, and when he did, whether it was Roosevelt or Reagan, he added his own book to our epic narrative and introduced his virtues and his enemies’ vices to the characters of our popular fiction, be they antagonists in a novel or babyfaces on a wrestling show.

Each culture attributes different — sometimes arbitrary — values to the heroes and villains of the national mythos. We dress up the paper dolls of our history this way to establish the traits or concepts that we find to be “good” and “bad.” From an alternate perspective, Lincoln is the tyrannical authority figure drunk on power and Booth the self-sacrificing idealist. The construction of these narratives is crucial, as the culture who most successfully defines itself is generally the one that dominates an era.

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